Less than a week has passed in the Gophers’ quest to replace fired men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith. There is still plenty of time and opportunity, and there are plenty of candidates available, to get this right.
But in what marked an early trend, Flip Saunders — a candidate widely assumed to be, at the very least, a good backup plan — has turned down the Gophers’ job offer, according to multiple reports, including ESPN’s Andy Katz.
Saunders, a former Gophers player and Timberwolves coach, currently works as an NBA analyst for ESPN.
Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague declined comment when reached Saturday. Senior associate AD Mike Ellis could not be reached for comment.
Whichever coach Teague ends up hiring will be, he hopes, part of the foundation for the entire house he wants to build in Minnesota. As such, the process takes time. There are politics involved, discrete conversations and major decisions to be made.
But because of the way the first workweek has unfolded, some fans have begun to panic, wondering whether the university has a plan or whether the administration is already grasping at straws.
Reports connected the Gophers reaching out to four separate candidates this week, none of whom accepted the job. Rumors flew about the Gophers pursuing Shaka Smart, who shortly after agreed to an extension at Virginia Commonwealth. Talks centered around Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg next, and he told the Des Moines Register that the Gophers reached out but never offered the job. Hoiberg, like Smart, signed a long extension.
Katz reported that Brad Stevens was the next target, but the Butler coach has made it clear he isn’t interested in leaving Indianapolis. By the time the weekend rolled around, there were reports that Teague and Ellis had turned their attention to Saunders, who had quickly become a fan favorite and won the support of many outspoken boosters.
Saturday’s reports about Saunders don’t leave the Gophers scrambling yet, but it also doesn’t help the perception of the search.
Teague and Ellis have a reputation nationwide for being some of the best-connected in the business, thanks to Ellis’ successful Villa 7 program, an annual meet-up between ADs and high-level assistants.
There is still much to play out, and the Gophers could very well impress their fans if they find the right guy. Discussion of Marquette’s Buzz Williams, a Villa 7 alum with whom Teague and Ellis are close, has generated some excitement. With the Golden Eagles losing in the Elite Eight on Saturday, there is an opportunity available for Minnesota to instigate talks.
Other coaches Teague could pursue include Florida Gulf Coast’s Andy Enfield, whose team was eliminated on Friday, and Xavier’s Chris Mack.
The university administration has been quiet regarding the job opening since Monday’s news conference announcing Smith’s firing, so any information about the search so far is believed to be coming from other sources.